Friday, December 7, 2007

Israeli human rights activists

On the evening of 5 December 2007, our delegation from Australia visited the Swedish Christian Studies Center (about 200 metres from our hotel), where we listened to three presentations on human rights in Israel and Palestine. What made these talks compelling was that each speaker was an Israeli citizen who viewed Israeli treatment of Palestinians as unjust. The speakers were:

Hanna began by describing her group of women as "the most hated women in Israel." She claimed that Israel had a weak government and a strong military, and that the army effectively ruled the country. She said there had been a small but noticeable decrease in violence toward Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints since Machsom Watch had begun its activities. She also said that military occupation leads to corruption.

The speaker from Breaking the Silence was a young infantry lieutenant who served from 1998 to 2002 in most of the military hotspots. He told personal stories and explained how he came to embrace non-violence. One thing that impressed me was his comment that "Every Israeli has a political solution to the conflict, but no one wants to talk about morality." This observation has been reinforced many times in what I have seen and heard while in Israel.

The third speaker, Rabbi Ascherman, spoke passionately about the need for Israelis to take human rights seriously. He noted that a concern for the rights of others is foundational to the Torah, and drew attention to the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which declares that the State of Israel will:

foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

He also praised Rabbi David Forman, the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, as comparable to Dr Martin Luther King, and concluded with a quote from Rabbi Heschel that summed up all that we have been hearing and witnessing these past few days:

In a democracy, a few are guilty but all are responsible. We need an Israel that is not only physically strong but morally strong, and that lives up to our society's highest values.

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